Jeh Johnson (Rick Kopstein)
Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson will rejoin Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison on Monday for the fourth time in three decades, continuing a long habit of returning to the firm after stints in public service.
President Obama appointed Johnson to lead the Department of Homeland Security in late 2013. He served as general counsel of the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2012, where he oversaw the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gay people from serving openly in the military. He was a key legal architect of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies, including its use of drones to kill terror suspects abroad.
Johnson, 59, does not expect to return to government again, he said in an interview Sunday. “It’s time to turn the page and start a new chapter,” he said.
“I don’t want my profile for the next however-many years that I’m productive to be, ‘former this,’” Johnson said. “I hope to rebuild my law practice into a new phase with the benefit of the experience I’ve had for the last eight years in the administration.”
Johnson oversaw security during President Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, an effort he said involved 28,000 people. During the inauguration, he was appointed as the designated survivor, meaning he remained in a secured, undisclosed location and could have been named president had disaster struck the capital.
On Friday night, retired Gen. John Kelly replaced Johnson as Homeland Security secretary, overseeing the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FEMA, the Secret Service and the Coast Guard. Johnson called Kelly a good friend and predicted he would be well-received at the agency.
After joining Paul Weiss as an associate in 1984, Johnson worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. He returned to Paul Weiss in 1992 and became the firm’s first African American partner two years later, before becoming general counsel of the Air Force during the Clinton administration. Johnson returned to Paul Weiss once again both before and after his time in the Department of Defense.
“You could make the argument that there’s no lawyer in our country who has dealt with a more challenging suite of issues than Jeh,” said Paul Weiss chair Brad Karp.
In a 2013 speech at Fordham Law School on the pros and cons of a national security court, Johnson discussed the president’s use of “targeted lethal force,” a topic that was becoming controversial at the time.
“In my view, targeted lethal force is at its least controversial when it is on its strongest, most traditional legal foundation,” Johnson said. “The essential mission of the U.S. military is to capture or kill an enemy. Armies have been doing this for thousands of years. As part of a congressionally-authorized armed conflict, the foundation is even stronger.”
In a speech at Yale Law School in 2012, Johnson defended the Obama administration’s ability to kill certain American citizens who join Al Qaeda. He also co-authored the administration’s report on the effect of allowing gay people to serve opening in the military, which paved the way for Congressional repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
While leading the Homeland Security Department, Johnson spoke at the Islamic Society of North America, telling the audience, “your struggle for full acceptance in this country is one you will win. How do I know this? Because my African American ancestors and I have traveled a similar road.”
Johnson said he will move into the office at Paul Weiss that once belonged to Ted Sorensen, who served as White House Counsel under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The former secretary said the office is “hugely symbolic and meaningful,” because Sorenson was his friend and mentor. Johnson said he recently found a photo of Kennedy and Sorenson together in the Oval Office, which he plans to hang next to a photo of himself and President Obama in the same spot.
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